Calculus of Conflict

In Turkey, the lifeless body of a three-year-old Syrian refugee child, Aylan Kurdia, is seen lying face down on a beach. In southern Thailand, a political, religious and cultural clash between Malay separatists and the military government produces an 11-year cycle of violence that leaves an estimated 6,500 dead and at least 11,500 injured. In northern Cameroon, near Nigeria, a suicide bomber associated with Boko Haram enters a mosque and blows himself up, killing 12 others. In Temixco, Mexico, the newly elected anti-drug mayor is brutally assassinated hours after taking office when gunmen open fire on her home.

These are but a few examples of the many faces of violent conflict. In disperse and far-flung locations around the globe, millions of families live in perpetual fear and face unspeakable loss. As the number of conflicts grows, the humanitarian community is now confronting the highest number of refugees and migrants since World War II. And the ripple effect extends much further—to the politicians, policymakers, analysts, academics, nongovernmental organizations and military personnel who work to understand and mitigate conflict.

In the years following the 9/11 attacks, scholars have begun to ask penetrating questions about the motivating factors, human toll and long-term aftermath of asymmetric conflicts. Insights from this research can help stakeholders understand the scope and depth of these conflicts, and also point to innovative new resolution strategies. Armed with data-driven findings about what works and what does not, officials can begin to make fact-based decisions about public policies and funding.

The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts and The Pearson Global Forum will lead this effort. Founded in late 2015 with a transformational $100 million gift by The Thomas L. Pearson and The Pearson Family Members Foundation, the two institutions are the first of their kind devoted solely to the study and resolution of global conflicts.

Housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, The Pearson Institute and The Pearson Global Forum will fill a critical gap in identifying new strategies rooted in innovative and data-driven research approaches. Going forward, the two institutions will act as driving forces in transforming the world’s understanding of and approaches to global, regional, state and nonstate conflicts.

“No single issue is more important today than the study of the intersection of war, failed states, terrorism and economic cataclysms—and more importantly, the response that the design of policies directed toward forming a more peaceful world will have,” Tom Pearson says. “Today, 59.5 million people are refugees, displaced or seeking asylum. The time to act is now.”

For many years, violent global conflicts were dominated by confrontations between major world powers or neighboring states. That began to change as the Cold War ended. Today, large-scale conflicts are less likely, while conflicts of any kind between states remain at historically low levels. 

Yet across the globe, violent conflict is very much evident— and on the rise. As traditional sources of conflict recede, terrorist organizations, guerrilla fighters, insurgent and rebel groups, warlords, failing states and drug traffickers are surging to prominence. The collapse of social and political order creates the environment for new types of violent conflicts. These, in turn, have created fundamental governance and development challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Pakistan, India, Somalia, Yemen, Mexico and Colombia, to name a few. 

“Very often, conflicts exist at the crossroads between traditional security, military and foreign policy diplomacy concerns, but also social, economic and international development interests,” says Daniel Diermeier, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy. “And these dimensions all interact and make these conflicts particularly complicated, difficult to anticipate, difficult to understand and difficult to resolve.”

Nowhere are these complex dynamics more combustible than in the Middle East, where what began as the “Arab Spring” has turned into winters of discontent across the failed states of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and parts of Northern Africa. In Syria, the civil war has claimed more than 200,000 lives over four years, some by chemical weapons. This conflict created an estimated 4.27 million refugees by the end of 2015, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. In the last 12 months alone, one out of two Syrians have fled their homeland.

Today, no one is truly safe from the threat of violent conflict. As 2015 ended, ISIS sympathizers blew up a Russian commercial flight over Egypt and opened fire in Paris, France, and San Bernardino, California, indiscriminately killing or injuring hundreds who crossed their paths. According to the U.S. State Department, such attacks increased 35 percent in 2014—the last year for which accurate data exists—killing nearly 33,000 people in 13,500 separate terror acts.

“From my perspective, there has never been a time in history like today,” says Gilbert LeVasseur, CEO of LeVasseur Capital Partners. “There are more failed states, more economies that are failing, more displaced people, more hunger and poverty and terrorism that exists today. And it is spreading like wildfire across the world.”

Irregular violent conflicts constitute the defining public policy threat of our time, jeopardizing human well-being, political stability and economic growth on a global scale. Today, one in every 122 people—amounting to 59.5 million people—is a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th-largest. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, children below 18 years of age constituted 51 percent of the refugee population in 2014.

The economic impact of violence on the global economy is equally staggering, estimated at $14.3 trillion, or 13.4 percent of world GDP in 2014, by the Institute for Economics and Peace. This is equivalent to the combined economies of Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. For a medium-sized developing country, the average civil war costs the equivalent of more than 30 years of GDP growth, according to the World Bank.

“Conflict disproportionately affects the developing world,” says Oeindrila Dube, an assistant professor of politics and economics currently researching global conflict at New York University. “Over a third of the developing nations have been directly affected by civil wars. By curbing conflicts we can directly improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest citizens. This is especially important at a time when there’s actually new and growing threats, new and growing forms of violence, that are affecting these very poor countries.”

As policymakers struggle to understand the drivers of asymmetric conflicts, The Pearson Institute and The Pearson Global Forum promise to yield fresh insights into the causes, dynamics and consequences of conflict. Broadly speaking, this academic and research agenda will focus on four domains: the economic analysis of the causes of conflict; the strategies for countering, preventing and resolving asymmetric violence; the consequences of conflict; and the strategies for post conflict reconciliation and reconstruction.

Importantly, this research will draw on proven methodologies employed in a variety of other domains—health, education, economics and environmental policy, to name a few—to develop an entirely new approach to thinking about global conflicts. These data-driven methodologies will begin with theoretically important questions and strong hypotheses guided by rigorous theory. Each approach will often involve randomized controlled trials, statistical analyses and sophisticated modeling as well as detailed data collection, either in the field or generated by researchers themselves. Disciplined research design will enable scholars to move beyond correlation-based conclusions to discover causal relationships that can provide a reliable foundation for effective public policy.

Make no mistake, this work is very challenging. The best practitioners must stay attuned to the intricacies of conflicts and policies so their studies ask theoretically important questions. They need to create conceptually coherent experiments that test for causal relationships and possess the ability to acquire the right kind of data. They can access data collected by foreign governments or nongovernmental organizations—no small feat—or spend the time and resources necessary to collect it in the field, often over many years and potentially at substantial personal risk.

These challenges notwithstanding, recent studies in the following areas demonstrate the promise of such research to inform public policymaking:

Causes and Severity of Conflicts
Given the prevalence of new conflicts, scholars are investigating the economic, religious, ethnic, political and cultural factors that affect both the risk or severity of such conflicts and the effectiveness of prevention and resolution strategies.

Separate studies in Colombia and the Philippines, for example, have explored the causal relationship between economic investments and violence. These carefully crafted empirical studies demonstrated that policies that increase economic opportunities for the poor trigger an opportunity-costs mechanism that reduces violence. Policies that increase the value of capital-intensive commodities or infrastructure, on the other hand, trigger a predation mechanism that increases violence by motivating rebels to exploit territory that investment has made more valuable.

Policy Interventions
Asymmetric violence forces policymakers to consider a number of intervention strategies, including military and police action, economic development, negotiation, state building and peacekeeping. Fact-based research can help them understand which ones may most effectively counter, prevent and resolve such violence.

For example, Harvard economist Melissa Dell has examined the impact tough-on-drugs mayors in Mexico have on drug cartel activity. Her study compared cities that had very close elections, so the policy outcome was determined by the random happenstance of a very small number of votes. She found that cities that just barely elected mayors from the strictest anti-drug party experienced increased drug violence relative to otherwise similar cities that just barely did not elect such a mayor. These findings were tragically confirmed recently when drug traffickers brutally assassinated a staunch anti-drug mayor from Temixco in her home less than 24 hours after she took office.

Consequences of Conflict
For years, policymakers and nongovernmental organizations have debated whether sending aid in the form of food, currency or weapons promotes stability by strengthening the recipient governments or exacerbates existing conflict by emboldening adversaries.

One recent study considered the impact that U.S. food aid had on violent conflicts within the 125 countries that received wheat shipments between 1971 and 2006. The study’s empirical framework carefully controlled for the two factors—reverse causality and joint determination—that can blur causal relationships. The study’s findings led to important insights that can directly influence policy decisions. For example, in smaller communities with recent histories of civil war, violent conflict spiked, and the duration of conflict increased, in years when bumper U.S. wheat crops produced corresponding spikes in grain shipments. In such cases U.S. aid contributed to violent conflict by tempting violent groups to disrupt supply chains and loot these resources.

Successful Recovery
Asymmetric conflicts have troubling long-term consequences for the social, psychological, economic and political well-being of affected countries and their citizens. Recent studies in such post conflict settings as Liberia and Sierra Leone evaluate how effectively various approaches to post conflict reintegration have worked, including alternative dispute resolution training, truth and reconciliation programs, cognitive behavioral therapy and job training. In post conflict settings, researchers have found that a combination of cash transfers and cognitive behavioral therapy appears to be more effective than either one on its own for at-risk young men. Studies have also found that truth and reconciliation programs have mixed results—potentially increasing social cohesion and forgiveness, but also reducing psychological well-being by retraumatizing victims.

In the nascent years of global conflicts research, an institutional disconnect has largely prevented the scholars’ findings from directly informing policymaking. As a result, researchers have struggled to find an audience, while legislators and policymakers have based life-and-death decisions largely on political contexts and collective experience. From this perspective, it is not surprising that some policy decisions bring unintended consequences. Two experts emphasized this point during a September 30, 2015, event on the University of Chicago campus.

“In the case of the current conflict in Syria, it is likely that better research could have informed better policymaking and either blunted or averted the conflict that has now claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions of refugees,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who helped facilitate peace negotiations in Northern Ireland in 2013. “Better policy and anticipation could have made a difference.”

“We did not ask ourselves about the consequences if the U.S. did not engage [in Syria], and it haunts me,” says Julie Smith, who served as Vice President Joe Biden’s deputy national security advisor in 2012 and 2013. For Smith, the fast pace of international diplomacy and global conflicts does not always lend itself to languid deliberation.

With so much at stake, a growing number of organizations, including USAID and the U.S. military, have called for evidence-based approaches. This influence is reflected in such documents as USAID’s “The Development Response to Violent Extremism and Insurgency,” and the U.S. military’s Joint Publication 3-07 on “stability operations.” Each incorporates important lessons from the scholarly literature and reflects a notable shift in organizational thinking relative to a decade ago.

“When you talk to policymakers today, they need to have new answers, they need to have new approaches in order to deal with these challenges,” says Diermeier. “So we have on the one hand tremendous need, tremendous humanitarian impact, and on the other hand we need new policy approaches to really make a difference in the resolution of global conflicts. That’s the tension. That’s the need. And The Pearson Institute will help us analyze and understand violent conflicts, and provide new policy solutions that help us resolve them.”

“My sense is that, at the State Department, we are looking for the type of analysis that The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts would provide,” says Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne C. Richard, AM’84. “We need good data. We need crosscutting, interdisciplinary analysis. We need people who have taken the time to study the situations on the ground and can come up with solutions. For example, if you do not understand the role of minorities inside Syria, you’re not going to understand why Assad has managed to stay in power.”

The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts and The Pearson Global Forum were conceived and structured specifically to bridge this critical gap between research and policymaking. The Pearson Institute is establishing the cohesive academic and research agenda for violent conflict study that is missing today. Scholars will be training a new generation of professional and doctoral students and providing professional development seminars for policymakers. The Pearson Global Forum will convene academics and policymakers, thereby elevating research findings and helping scholars secure the cooperation necessary to advance The Pearson Institute’s academic and research agenda. Together, The Pearson Institute and The Pearson Global Forum will become the focal institutions that policymakers can easily consult for expert direction and guidance.

“Ultimately, The Pearson Institute, along with The Pearson Global Forum, will build a foundation of data-driven scholarship relating to these new, 21st-century conflicts,” says Tim Pearson. “Scholars will parse those findings using statistical modeling and other analytical techniques, and then translate the insights into the sort of data-driven recommendations that can sway policymakers and lead to decisive action—which, in turn, can be expected to lead to a global society more at peace.”

— Rob Squire, AM’83